The Role of the Bible
How does the Bible help us in moral decision-making? Christians give different answers to this question. Some think of the Bible as a kind of moral code book, a complete source of instructions about living. These people often see the Bible as "inerrant," perfect in every detail because it is God’s book. They give little or no attention to the human side of Scripture and how it is rooted in ancient history. These Christians read the Bible without asking about what lies behind the text or the historical situation in which the text originated. Lutherans disagree with this approach to Scripture because it remains on the surface level. We draw upon a long tradition of biblical scholarship that takes seriously the original setting and meaning of the text.
The Lutheran understanding of the Bible as the written form of God’s Word appreciates its historical character. The Bible has not been dropped from heaven apart from an historical setting. Therefore, to read the Bible responsibly, we need to interpret its contents for our own time. This does not mean that only scholars can understand or apply the Word, nor does it mean we must insist on finding the one and only perfect interpretation for each biblical passage. But it does mean that the Bible deserves serious study. We must first understand what the words of Paul or Jesus meant to the people of their day before we can appreciate what they are saying to us. Another reason why the Bible does not function well as a moral handbook is because it contains such a variety of ethical material. This variety includes moral codes for the people of Israel, stories from Israel’s history that often contain a moral truth, moral wisdom adopted from other cultures (most notably the Proverbs), and the teachings of Jesus and Saint Paul. With this diversity, there is no easy formula for applying the moral commands one finds in Scripture. For example, some Christians claim they know what the Bible says about the death penalty. They cite verses like Exodus 21:22-25 (the law of retribution) and Romans 13:1-4 (the right of the government to "bear the sword" in punishment). But other Christians appeal to different verses, including John 8:3-11 (where Jesus refuses to condemn the woman subject to execution for adultery), and come to the exact opposite conclusion. Throughout history, Christians have taken opposing positions on many issues, all of them claiming support from Scripture.
What does all this mean for the use of the Bible as a help in making moral choices?
Because we Lutherans believe the Bible is the Word of God, we approach it expectantly and with reverence. We want to listen to what God says to us in Scripture, but what we hear will always involve our interpretation of the text. This means that we can and do come up with differing conclusions on what the Bible is saying to us. Rather than to see the Bible as a book of answers to difficult moral questions, Lutherans. along with many other Christians, tend to see the Bible as a book through which the Spirit brings nurture and growth in the life of faith.12 As the church seeks to equip its members for Christian living, it uses the Bible as an important teaching tool. It gives us the Ten Commandments, stories of moral heroism (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife), of moral accountability (the prophet Nathan and King David), of loyalty under pressure (Ruth and Naomi), and parables that judge self-righteousness (the Pharisee and the tax collector) and exalt love and reconciliation (the prodigal son). We hear and learn these stories from childhood. They all are part of the church’s message that inspires and directs our life toward Gospel-motivated works of love and a sense of responsibility toward the neighbor.
From LIVING THE FAITH: A LUTHERAN PERSPECTIVE ON ETHICS
Copyright © September 1999 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Produced by the Division for Church in Society and the Division for Congregational Ministries, 8765 West Higgins Road, Chicago, Illinois, 60631-4190.